Among the largest extant species of eagle in the world, the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) is a formidable bird of prey found in the lowland rainforests of South America. They hunt in the canopy; their main prey consists of monkeys, sloths and other arboreal mammals.
The harpy eagle has an impressive plumage, ranging from dark-grey to white. Their head is pale grey and is crowned with a double crest which gives them their distinctive ‘spiky hair’. Arguable, their most stunning quality is their huge talons on their pale yellow feet – the largest talons of any eagle – which they use to firmly grasp and lift prey equal to their body weight (for females this is around 6 to 8kg and around 4 to 5kg for males). With their colossal velociraptor-esque talons you can see how birds evolved from the dinosaurs.
Once fully grown, their wingspan is larger than the average human is tall, nevertheless, they can still soar through the dense rainforest canopy with ease. Their highly evolved sight and hearing senses and extraordinary manoeuvrability allow them to swiftly glide and dodge the huge obstacles in their habitat.
Their mighty powerful talons, majestic wingspan and keen eyesight make the harpy eagle the most powerful raptor in the rainforest. Besides their amazing attributes as a hunter, this species also plays a vital role in the complex rainforest ecosystems by keeping populations stable. Unfortunately, in recent years, their population has fallen considerably and in Central America they are virtually extinct. In South America, they still occupy quite a large range but they are threatened by habitat loss due to logging, cattle ranching, commercial and subsistence agriculture, mining, and urban sprawl. Luckily, organisations such as the Peregrine Fund are helping to conserve the harpy eagle’s habitat and build up their population, for instance, since 1998, the Peregrine Fund has helped by releasing almost 50 harpy eagles back into the wild which is a considerable amount when considering their relatively low population. We have a moral obligation to look after this spectacular bird.
Restricted to large swamps from Sudan to Zambia, the shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) is a wading bird with a large shoe-like bill (hence the name). They use their huge beak to scoop vertebrate prey from the swampy waters. The shoebill has long legs and large feet which helps them to move through deep swamps and stand upon aquatic vegetation.
Their beak is straw coloured and their plumage is blue-grey with darker feathers on their wings. The shoebill actually has the third longest bill among extant birds, after large storks and pelicans. This species has a mighty wingspan which makes them adapted for soaring short distances with only a few wing flaps.
The shoebill prefers poorly oxygenated shallow water as fish surface more often, becoming easy prey for this stalking bird. They are mostly silent and solitary birds although they will perform bill-clattering displays during the nesting season to attract a mate.
The IUCN Red List classifies these majestic birds as ‘vulnerable’ since they are threatened by habitat destruction, hunting and human disturbance. With their huge beak, glaring eyes and long, spindly legs they can seem rather intimidating – like a modern day dinosaur. However, they are a one-of-a-kind species, appearing to be somewhere in-between a stork and a pelican, and are yet another animal which is threatened by human behaviour so they deserve our protection.
A truly primitive bird, the southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) is the second-heaviest and third-tallest living bird (after the ostrich and emu). This species is both beautiful and fierce. They have a stunning lightning blue head and neck with a huge, dark, black plumage, as well as two powerful three-toed feet – each with claws up to 12 centimetres in length. Their thick skinned legs and dagger-like talons cause me to view this bird as a modern-day velociraptor. They also have a brown, horn like casque but the function of this casque is debated. Perhaps it is used as an accessory in order to attract a mate, or as a digging tool, or maybe it is simply a protective helmet.
This particular species is the most widespread of its family. endemic to a range that extends through New Guinea and Northern Australia. Their diet consists mainly of fruits which they find upon the rainforest floor, however, as an omnivore, they will also eat insects, fungi and some small vertebrates.
The southern cassowary also plays a vitally important role within the ecosystem. Due to its fruit-based diet (including some fruits which are toxic to other animals), the cassowary is able to disperse plant’s seeds throughout its rainforest habitat which helps to maintain a stable community.
Although they are listed as ‘least concern’ by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the Australian population is classified as endangered since they only occupy a small range of Northeastern Australia. Unfortunately, the southern cassowary is threatened by habitat loss, road building, hunting, roadkill and feral animals (which eat their eggs). Conservation efforts are being made to help protect this species, particularly the Australian population, but these efforts also require human co-operation. For instance, people who live nearby or visit their habitat should drive carefully to avoid hitting this bird and should ensure dogs are kept on leads whilst in their range.
The southern cassowary is capable of killing humans and dogs but often they are misunderstood; they will only attack if provoked or agitated. Subsequently, we must show respect to these animals and minimise our disturbance to their lives. After all, the southern cassowary is an extremely unique bird.